HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Again – Flatter is Better

This is an updated version of “Flatter Is Better”, originally published in the May 2004 issue of “Municipal World”

If the traditional management style is dead, then why keep the traditional hierarchical organizational structure?

The traditional management style was to control the way people work; to control what they do, how they do it, and virtually every other aspect of their work. This was Scientific Management, the primary function of the manager. Most successful organizations today, however, understand that a more democratic and participative management style is more productive and that the traditional style is no longer accepted by most employees, especially a better educated and younger workforce. The increased use of Information Technology has also made organizational communication and reporting so much easier, so that old-fashioned “control” is no longer required for accountability and reporting requirements.

For many years now we have been talking instead about participative management, self managed teams, delegated responsibility and authority, empowerment, and the rise of organizational democracy in general. The traditional management position that did most of the “controlling” is being removed from many organizations. Experts such as Peter Block (1993, p.66) said close to twenty years ago in his book, Stewardship, that, “No one should be able to make a living simply planning, watching, controlling, or evaluating the actions of others.”

Managers, of course, are still here today, but their role has significantly changed and sometimes their title. They are expected to be coaches, mentors, trainers, and facilitators who support rather than control and who are just as likely to be called team leader as manager or supervisor.

The title of the position, be it supervisor, manager, director or vice president, is not the critical issue here. We use the terms management and manager here in the generic sense. What is the issue is whether a management position is purely one of “control” or whether it has a legitimate role. Michael Goold and Andrew Campbell (2002, p.278) in Designing Effective Organizations propose nine tests for effective organizational design. The “Redundancy Hierarchy Test” poses the question, “Are all levels in the hierarchy and all responsibilities retained by higher levels based on a knowledge and competence advantage.”  They write that the purpose of the test is to ensure that the higher levels in an organizational hierarchy have clear value adding roles and that they must be built around a logic that explains why that higher level is better able to contribute than the lower level. They point out that there are inevitable costs to any extra layer of hierarchy and that those costs should be more than offset by an increase in the productivity of the programs beneath them.  In the public sector, any redundant layer of hierarchy detracts from scarce funds that could be more productively spent elsewhere and also represents an unnecessary cost to the taxpayer.

If it is generally recognized and accepted that the traditional management style is no longer productive, then why do so many still cling to the traditional hierarchical organizational structure?  Why do three or four or five program managers, for example, automatically require a director to “oversee” them or to “coordinate” their programs? Are they not competent enough to be responsible for their programs? Are they not capable of collaborating and cooperating with each other as required? We note, for example, that a major public sector employer was searching for a general manager to “oversee” the departments of finance, human resources, information technology, and legal services. What on earth needs “overseeing”? What needs coordinating, especially among such disparate functions? Presumably each area has a competent and well-trained manager who should be responsible and accountable for their own department, including the required teamwork with all other departments.

Another, by no means unique, example is a municipal Community Services Department where the director has to oversee the programs of Recreation, Family and Community Support Services, Bylaw Enforcement, and the Fire Department. Each program has its own manager. There is no common functionality or linkage, so what needs to be coordinated? Of course all the programs offer community services, but so does the entire municipality. What actually does the director have as discrete responsibilities? What does the director bring to the table that the program managers do not or cannot? In many cases the answer is nothing. The position has been created purely to group together certain programs because of the traditional mindset that says that they have to be controlled and that the management “span of control” is limited and, therefore, one cannot have too many managers reporting directly to the chief administrative officer (CAO) in this example or a chief executive officer (CEO) in the private sector.

But that’s exactly the point – there’s that word “control” again. If we accept the fact that this traditional management style is dead, or should be, then why are we still using traditional organizational concepts that support it? If we accept a different management style and overall organizational culture then the question of traditional span of control no longer applies. Rather than span of control, let’s use a new term such as “span of reporting relationships”. Certainly there is a limit to how many positions can effectively report to one CAO or CEO, but that limit is far greater than the usual three to five under a traditional control oriented management style. If responsibility is truly delegated to competent managers, it is not at all difficult to have far more direct reports. If the Fire Department, in the above municipal example, reports directly to the CAO, how often does the CAO really need to meet with the Fire Chief? How much time really needs to be spent directing the Fire Chief? Can the CAO really provide any direction assuming that he or she lacks the required knowledge and competence? So any reporting is probably only in emergencies or over budgetary issues or broad issues of strategic planning. As the same criteria can be applied to all other functions, the span of direct reports to the CAO can be much broader today than ever before. There are also significant advantages to the CAO or CEO to have a broader Management Team as we discuss below.

In the example above of a municipal Community Services Department, the position of director is redundant, as it has no added value; it contributes nothing more than the individual program managers do. On the other hand, let’s take the example of a Community & Economic Development Department that included such programs as Recreation, Family and Community Support Services, Tourism, Community Events, and Economic Development. In this case we have a department that is comprised of programs that have strong linkages, and if the director has the functional knowledge and competence in the main area of Community/Economic Development, then he or she can truly add value not only through their own functional expertise, but also by uniting and coordinating all programs and resources towards the same goals.

The traditional hierarchical organizational structure and the traditional management style were mutually supportive and dependent upon each other. Traditional managers relied on power and status to exercise control. The traditional organizational hierarchy was based on levels of power and status and provided for such positions of control, whereas there is no room for such positions in a flat organizational structure.

The hierarchical organizational structure not only supports the concept of management “control” and the positions that exercise that control, it actually impedes any serious attempt to adopt a more participative and productive workplace culture.

  • The hierarchical  structure, by its very nature, forces vertical communication and discourages horizontal communication. It fosters and supports individual silos that do not have to communicate and cooperate with each other.
  • The hierarchy of control stands squarely in the way of delegated responsibility and, therefore, breeds irresponsibility and a lack of accountability. One can always pass the buck up the chain of command rather than be accountable.
  • Teamwork in general, and cross-functional teams in particular, requires freedom of horizontal communication, which is impeded by a vertical structure.
  • Participative management cannot exist in the traditional hierarchy; the two are mutually exclusive. The hierarchy is based on authority and control as opposed to delegation and participation. You either scrap the hierarchy or give up any pretense of a participative management style.
  • A hierarchical structure also reinforces arbitrary differences in the level of rewards, differences that are not based on skill and ability or the level of contribution to the organization and its bottom line. Rewards need not be equal; the marketplace dictates different rewards for different occupations. But other distinctions in level of pay should be based on contribution to the organization, not arbitrary distinctions in power and status.

In the same manner that the traditional hierarchical organizational structure supports the traditional management style, a flat structure supports, fosters, and reinforces a more participative and productive management style and workplace culture. It will even, by its very nature, serve to force such changes.

  • The communication is more open, direct, and accurate.
  • Individual program managers cannot hide and pass the buck; there is no one to pass it to.
  • Managers are forced to work with each other across the organization and not just within the narrow confines of some individual silo.
  • The “management team” is a truly representative team of all programs and not just a few select individuals who presume to speak for others in areas that they have little if any experience with.
  • Because the management team is now truly representative of all interests, there is far greater opportunity for open and honest input and dialogue from all areas, and less opportunity for the protection of vested interests or personal power and status. The CAO or CEO can be far better assured, as well as the council or board, that all sides to any issue are clearly and openly heard.

Changing the organizational structure is the most important step in changing the organizational culture to a more participative and productive one; yet it is frequently overlooked. Unfortunately, however, you can’t do one without the other.

Competent chief executive officers and chief administrative officers don’t need several vice presidents or general managers or directors to “oversee”, control, and coordinate competent program heads. Keep it simple, keep it flat, and reap the benefits of a more productive organization.

The traditional management style is dead. Bury the traditional organizational structure with it.


Block, P., 1993. Stewardship. San Francisco: Berrett- Koehler.

Goold, M. and Campbell, A., 2002. Designing Effective Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.